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Non-Standard Employment in Europe. Paradigms, Prevalence and Policy Responses. Ed. by Max Koch and Martin Fritz. [Work and Welfare in Europe.] Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke [etc.] 2013. xxiv, 246 pp. £55.00.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 July 2015

Peter Birke*
Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut Göttingen (SOFI) an der Georg-August-UniversitätFriedländer Weg 31, 37085 Göttingen, Germany
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Book Review
Copyright © Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 2015 

This volume is based on contributions that originate from a workshop at the 17th World Congress of Sociology (Gothenburg, 2010). The editors’ aim is twofold. First, to analyse the expansion of non-standard employment (a term comprising various forms of employment, such as temporary jobs, part-time work, self-employment, and “informal” work) throughout Europe as part of post-Fordist types of labour market and workplace regulation. Second, to discuss the role of different welfare and industrial-relations regimes in these processes, the latter including a (rather poorly explicated) notion of “best practice” in dealing with the challenge of precarization, given that political strategies to counter it cannot simply advocate a return to standard employment. The starting point of the book is a notion of capitalism as a “dynamic process”, meaning that, in the first place, it is difficult even to assert a self-contained and unchanging notion of “standardization” (p. 2). The editors then focus mainly on the interrelatedness between de-standardization and “financialization”, a narrative that several of the book's authors refer to.

The book is divided into three parts. The first highlights theoretical, political, and economic backgrounds; the second contains a total of six case studies on ten countries; the third discusses comparative aspects. In the first part of the book, Jean-Claude Barbier analyses the shifting vocabulary with which non-standard employment was, and is, described. The most interesting feature of this short article is the diffusion of a language of “precarization” from the French to an international context, including a short remark on the role of activist networks in promoting and changing this language. The author deals with the different speeds of this diffusion as well – for example, in Denmark the notion of “precarity” was not used in mainstream debates until 2011, whereas the rapid deregulation of labour markets, unemployment benefits, and industrial relations between the end of the 1990s and the mid-2000s made the term “precarious work” feasible in the German context much earlier. In the second article in Part 1, Max Koch gives a more detailed account of the “financialization” narrative, based on comparative data on the development of GDP, the wage share, productivity, and financial stocks. Based on OECD data, his main finding concerning de-standardization is that: (a) employment protection has not decreased equally across countries, and that (b) in most cases permanent employment has not been eroded in the same way as, in particular, temporary or fixed-term employment (pp. 41, 42). In the final article of this section, Julia S. O'Connor gives an interesting account of EU regulations on non-standard employment. None of these three articles discusses theoretical controversies within the existing literature; perhaps this is typical for a collection based on a workshop at an international conference. Instead, they focus on those aspects most important to the contributors.

This slightly heterogeneous picture is corrected somewhat in the second section of the book. The six short case studies on non-standard employment show interesting similarities, but also striking differences. In their article on Spain, Sola et al. discuss the deregulation of the labour market since the end of the Franco dictatorship. They summarize the labour market reforms in two phases. Between 1984 and 1994 fixed-term contracts were legitimized as making labour market entry more flexible, which led to the comparatively fast expansion of low-paid, temporary employment, especially within services and construction. In the second phase, between 1997 and up until recently, reforms focused on the flexibilization of permanent contracts, making dismissals easier, for instance. The authors stress that neither type of labour market policy reduced the problem of job insecurity that exploded after the crisis broke in 2009. Meanwhile, an economic policy that includes a growth strategy focused chiefly on low productivity and low-waged sectors is “unlikely to solve the problem” (p. 73). Today, Spain has one of the highest rates of unemployment and the largest number of temporary jobs in the EU.

At first glance, Germany might be seen as differing most from the crisis-ridden southern European states. Indeed, the mainstream perception of the German “economic miracle” after 2009 is that export industries, especially, were able to assert their global market shares by focusing on product quality, qualified jobs, and rising productivity. The article by Holst and Dörre, however, shows that this development was connected to an erosion of standard employment, with effects actually reminiscent of developments in Spain before 2009. Drawing on the two aspects of the current changes in labour market regimes proposed by the French sociologist Serge Paugam, Holst and Dörre first analyse the de-standardization of employment and second the de-standardization of work – hinting at the interrelatedness of both aspects. As for the aspect of employment, the German “miracle” is based on the growth in, especially, temporary agency work, but also in (often involuntary) part-time and temporary contracts (see the data on p. 139), especially after the labour market reforms of the post-2001 so-called red-green coalition.

The rapid diffusion of non-standard employment at that time was combined with a new “activating” paradigm in unemployment policies – finally leading to nothing less than a “new relationship between the individual and society”, where the “normative duty of anyone is to be flexible” (p. 147). In the same period, the regulation of work changed as well, notably due to the shrinking scope of collective bargaining, decreasing trade-union power at the workplace, and the growing individualization of employees. Based on those findings (which, given the limited space available in an article, are only outlined), we can understand the change in core–periphery relations within Europe in a more appropriate way: on closer scrutiny the German model has paved the way for answers to the crisis also in other countries, answers that will increase poverty among both the employed and unemployed.

Other examples in the second section of the book show that this development is not “natural”, even within a capitalist framework of labour market politicies: for instance, the modes of deregulation and reregulation in Poland (Buchner-Jeziorska) have differed quite considerably from those in Croatia, especially since 2000, with a significant increase in the number of working poor in the first case and a regulation of at least some parts of the labour market and less drastic de-standardization in Croatia (Matković).

The last part of the book examines comparative aspects. As in the first part, no particular attempt is made to present a comprehensive and encompassing view here. Horemans and Marx, for example, describe cross-country variations in the perception of part-time work, finding that (and this will not surprise us) in countries where social security expenditure is still relatively high, in the Netherlands and Denmark for example, interviewees will normally be more satisfied with part-time work. While this (and the next) chapter discuss important aspects of the meaning of the notion “working poor” in different contexts, they do not relate to the case studies in Part 2 of the book.

The book's conclusion, written by the editors, repeats a series of aspects that had already been outlined in the introductory chapter. Again, the dynamic development of non-standard employment is discussed, and the contingent character of policy measures in the reregulation of labour markets highlighted. A more in-depth discussion of the consequences drawn from the empirical case studies presented in chapter 2 would have sharpened the argument. The one aspect actually added in the conclusion is the authors’ suggestion, somewhat disconnected from the other contributions to the book, of a number of political alternatives to the mainstream tendencies in labour market politics, including, for example, limits on self-employment or the implementation of a thirty-hour working week.

All in all, the book gives a useful, well-researched, and usually well-written overview of the topic. It would, however, have been useful had some of the features on which the book is based been discussed more deeply. For example, several articles mention the fact that labour market and employment arrangements were the “results of social struggles”. Apart from a brief mention of the wave of protests against the Hartz IV labour market reforms in Germany in 2004, this important aspect is not actually analysed anywhere in the text. Also, although almost all contributions sketch the historical background, this is reduced to more or less a few elements of economic and legal history. Apart from this lack of information on the historical context, the question of whether European countries shared a historical trajectory in relation to precarization is not really addressed.

While this edited volume is a splendid introduction to the transnational sociological analysis of non-standard employment, dealing as it does with fundamental processes of contemporary social history, a much more detailed and critical account of the European and global histories of precarization is necessary. This would help one to avoid seeing precarization in a purely “presentist” light and to understand it as a changing yet constituent part of capitalism since its beginnings.